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Minnesota man comes face-to-face with black bear

This black bear, which has been seen numerous times in the Melrude area this year, is believed to be the one that Mason Cavanaugh encountered recently. (Photo by Joel Musburger)

Mason Cavanaugh of Melrude kept his cool while an inquisitive black bear checked him out on a recent evening.

At first, Mason Cavanaugh thought the irritation on the back of his neck was another mosquito. The bugs had been bad that evening.

But when he reached around to slap the offender, he realized it was something else entirely.

"I felt something wet and furry," said Cavanaugh, 20, who lives with his parents in Melrude, just north of Cotton.

It was a black bear. A large black bear. And now it was standing on its hind legs.

"I want to say it was close to 7 feet tall," said Cavanaugh, who is 6-foot-3 himself. "It was a lot taller than I was."

On that evening, Aug. 18, Cavanaugh had gone to a friend's cabin on nearby Dinham Lake. He's working on a book, he said. He took his typewriter to do a little writing.

He was sitting in a chair on a patio not far from the cabin, fighting the mosquitoes as he wrote.

"The bugs were terrible," Cavanaugh said. "I kept swatting bugs like crazy. I thought I felt this huge bug on my neck. I was getting angry because I was trying to write."

That's when he slapped the bear's muzzle. When he turned around to see what he had slapped and saw the bear standing up, he had an immediate thought.

"I tell you, I had a couple swear words in my head," he said.

But, recalling advice from his school days, and partly because he was stunned, he didn't budge. He sat still. The bear stood on its hind legs behind him for about 10 seconds, Cavanaugh said.

"That kid has nerves of steel," said Martha Minchak, assistant area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Duluth.

The bear walked around Cavanaugh and over to some bird feeders on a deck railing at the cabin, where he stayed for about two minutes.

"I'm still not moving," Cavanaugh said. "I'm hoping he just leaves so I can get out of there."

But Cavanaugh wasn't that lucky. The bear looked at him, then began walking his way, Cavanaugh said.

"I'm thinking, 'This is absolutely terrible,' " he said. "He gets back to me and puts his nose right in my face and starts sniffing me. He put his nose right on my cheek. Then he backed off a couple of inches and gave me a couple of snorts.

"I kept thinking: 'Don't move. Don't run.' "

After what seemed a long time, the bear left Cavanaugh and walked off down a road. Cavanaugh then bolted for an outhouse, where he spent about half an hour waiting. When he figured the coast was clear, he drove home.

"When he came through the door, his face was just white," said Cavanaugh's mom, Barbara Cavanaugh. "He just stood there and started shaking a little bit."

The DNR's Minchak said the bear likely was confused about Cavanaugh.

"I think it probably didn't know what he was," she said. "That's why it came so close and was sniffing him, especially because he didn't move or make any sound."

Usually, Minchak advises people who encounter bears to wave their arms, make noise and try to appear larger than the bear. But in this case, with the bear already so close, she thinks Cavanaugh chose the right course of action.

"Obviously, it worked," she said.

One of Cavanaugh's friends has a trail camera in the woods near that cabin, he said. He captured a photo of a bear that Cavanaugh believes is the same one that visited him. He has a print of the photo framed at home.

And he's thinking the experience might make good material for some future writing.